Thursday, February 13, 2014

TooFatLardies' Chain of Command: First game and impressions

There's been some buzz on the net about Chain of Command lately. It's a "platoon plus" sized WW2 skirmish where each player typically controls a platoon of infantry along with a bit of support like a tank or weapon teams. The intro videos TooFatLardies have published showed an interesting spawnpoint based system and even though the game looked like there's a lot of randomness going on I bought the PDF to give it a go. I went to my friends' place where we set up an eastern front scenario and played it with three players learning the rules as we went on.

The game starts with a "patrol phase" where players alternate turns moving patrol markers on the table. These markers must form a continuous chain with max. 12 inch gaps and once the markers encounter enemy markers, they are locked 12 inches apart. This serves to draw the line of battle on the table and is a nice little metagame to try and get an edge over your opponent with. When all the markers are locked, they are used to deploy three or four "jump off points" on the table. Let's just call them spawnpoints because that's what they are. These spawnpoints are placed in cover outside enemy LOS and can be used to deploy units on the table during the game. The idea behind this is that they represent areas on the field where the platoon leader can send his units to without the enemy seeing them advance, giving the game a fog of war element and the players some tactical flexibility. It pays not to deploy all your troops at once but see how the situation develops and keep some reserves. The spawnpoints also serve as victory locations and their capture denies the enemy of their use. A bit quirky but works well in practice.

We played a very basic match with just two platoons (3 squads and a commander) of similar infantry facing each other. Additional support was minimal. The German side got an adjutant leader to the platoon and the Soviet side took a sniper team. The terrain was laid out to represent a village in some woods so there's plenty of cover and LOS obstacles around.

The opening setup

The core gameplay happens in "phases" which each player alternates taking. During these phases the phasing player rolls typically five dice and consults the pips. 1's allow him to activate small teams, 2's allow him to activate whole squads (which typically consist of a rifle section and a LMG team), 3's activate junior leaders (squad NCO's who have better flexibility in commanding the squad than what you get on a 2), and 4's activate senior leaders (typically the platoon HQ who can command all troops in his command range). The amount of 6's rolled indicate whether the next phase will alternate to the other player, whether you get a double turn, whether the turn will end or whether there will be a random event.

All rolled 5's increase the players' "chain of command dice" which is another special mechanic to activate special abilities. You accumulate pips on the die for each 5 rolled, and once you have six pips, you have one special ability to use. These abilities range from moving spawn points to interrupting the opponent's turn to springing ambushes. Having one of these points in use while still having some troops undeployed is a good way to keep your opponent on his toes.

The Soviets move fast to claim a German spawnpoint.

The Soviet player got a good start by rolling a double turn on his first roll. This means he rolled a double 6, and was allowed to take another turn after completing his first. This allowed him to deploy a squad of infantry on the table and move it to take one of the German spawn points before the Germans could deploy anything. I guess they really caught the Germans with their pants down! The Germans quickly deployed one of their squads to the nearest spawn point and moved to reclaim the lost one. If a turn ends when one of your spawn points is in enemy hands, it is a bad blow to force morale. Too bad the Soviets had time to deploy their squad on overwatch, and there was no other way to get to the spawn point but over open ground.

The Germans lurk behind the house as the squad leader tries to figure out what to do.
Reasoning there is no other way, the NCO split his squad and had the LMG section set up on the right side of the house pictured above to lay down covering fire and have the rifle section assault the Soviet position from the left. Too bad it was the LMG team which drew the Soviets' overwatch fire and the team sustained a casualty and enough shock to pin them.

The LMG is pinned.

The Rifle section advances on the Soviets.

Meanwhile on the Germans' right flank, the Soviets began deploying and moved to take a fence along the road in the middle of the table. This game them hard cover whereas the Germans advancing towards them from the woods had only light cover. A firefight started and the Germans were indeed racking up more casualties and shock. This prompted them to deploy their third and final squad to help the second one, and the increased firepower helped them pin the Soviet squad. This was not before the German squad lost their NCO though. The Soviets deployed their third squad in the center of the table and advanced towards the ruin near the center.

The Soviets take position behind the fence.

The Germans gain numerical superiority and whittle down the pinned Soviets
Meanwhile near the captured German spawnpoint, the Germans launched their attack. They could not stall any further because the third unengaged Soviet squad was one move away from coming to assist the ones who captured of the spawnpoint. The platoon adjutant commander came to the scene and after some verbal advice, the squad NCO attacked. The rifle section lobbed a grenade on the Soviets causing a casualty and a point of shock, and then charged. The result was messy. Since the Soviet squad had not been pinned, they were all too ready to receive the Germans and killed them all in a brutal round of rattling dice, losing only one man in return. The Squads' LMG was shot up by the center Soviet squad. The platoon adjutant found himself alone against two operational Soviet squads.

A grim result of the German charge.
On the other flank, the Germans got their only success of the day. The German squad charged the pinned Soviet squad at the fence with much more success than their compatriots, routing those who would not die. When they tried to advance across the road to threaten the Soviet spawnpoints, they were caught in Soviet fire from the Squad at the center of the table and were pinned.

The platoon adjutant was captured in melee, and at that point the Soviet player used one Chain of Command point to end the turn, which crippled the German morale. Their morale had dropped steadily during the match because of losses and the spawnpoint was the final straw. A total defeat for the Germans.

Closing thoughs:

Chain of Command seems like a fresh contender to the platoon-sized ww2 ruleset race along with Bolt Action, Rate of Fire and the like. The game introduces mechanics I haven't seen elsewhere and the system works well. The rules are written in a way that might confuse the player a bit. There were several points where we were uncertain on how to interpret the rule, and the command system takes some getting used to. The book refers to Units, Squads, Sections and Teams with different rules, which can add to the confusion. The book says squads and sections are the same thing, but could they not have used just one of the terms since you already have to differentiate between units, squads and teams when doing activations?

The game can also be a bit random. The melee system seems to give a lot of dice for leaders in melee, making a lonely leader more than a match for four men attacking him. Rolling poorly on activations might leave you frustrated, but since each phase represents only a few seconds, having a squad unable to activate for two or three phases is ok realism-wise. People have complained that the game only lasts for a turn or two, but they're missing the point. The end of the turn means a "significant lull in the battle", which might not even happen in every match. It didn't in our game.

Apart from these gripes, the game works well. Movement and firing is easy and the suppression system works as it's supposed to. I'll need to play a couple more games to see if this is a keeper however.

Oh, and we played a game of Talisman too.